SANAA (Reuters) - For Fayez al-Absi, Yemen’s most important political gathering in 50 years will never manage to end the country’s political turmoil, as many of the powerbrokers participating are the cause of the very problems they are meant to solve.
In his more optimistic moments, the photography shop manager says dialogue should be given a chance to fix the conflicts tearing at Yemen’s stability and alarming its bigger neighbor, oil superpower Saudi Arabia.
But having lost a cousin in the 2011 revolt that forced the then president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, Absi said some of the delegates at the talks were “killers of youth”, referring to the young men who died in the uprising.
“They are responsible for the problems they are trying to fix,” Absi, 40, told Reuters inside his shop, which looks out on Street Seventy, focus of the Arab Spring uprising that ended the 33-year rule of then head of state Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“But we want to move on. Yemen needs to move on, and we can only move on if we talk to each other,” he said.
His comments reflect the uneasy mix of cynicism and hope stirred by the so-called national dialogue conference aimed at stabilizing Yemen, an impoverished country of 25 million, its mountains and deserts home to what Western officials say is al Qaeda’s most dangerous offshoot.
Monday’s opening ceremony set out an ambitious agenda of reforms including drafting a new constitution that could install a federal state and limiting the number of terms a head of state can serve.
After years of factional turbulence, and a generation after a crippling war between the northern and southern parts of the country, could lasting change for the better be on the way?
It’s a question with global implications: Stabilizing Yemen, grappling with Islamist militants, southern secessionists and northern rebels, is an international priority.
The country flanks vital shipping lanes, and the United States sees it as a front line in its war on al Qaeda and has used drones there for years to target the group, which it says has planned attacks on international targets including airliners.
Further along Street Seventy, Naji Ali, another shop owner, complained that many Yemenis were yet to see any benefits of the uprising that forced Saleh out after 33 years in office.
The 39-year-old said that prior to the uprising, his bookshop was bringing in about 20,000 rials ($93) a day.
“Now, I make around 5,000 rials per day, and I would be very lucky if I can reach 10,000 rials,” he said as he directed an elderly man to a pay telephone booth he had set up to prop up his income.
“The situation has grown worse. True, there is better security, but there are no jobs and no money. Many people are begging on the streets or sift through the garbage for food.”
The political turmoil that has gripped Yemen since protests erupted in 2011 against Saleh has left the country in near ruin.
As the economy ground to a halt, southern secessionists grew more vocal in their demands for a separate state and Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda grew more violent.
Some Yemenis say security and public services have improved since President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi succeeded Saleh under a Gulf-backed deal that saw the veteran strongman step down.
But many complain the recovery has been too slow, and blame remnants of Saleh’s regime, many of whom stayed on in their posts in the government’s bureaucracy, for obstructing recovery.
“This conference is the most important event in recent Yemeni history,” said Aida Hussein Ashour, a delegate representing Saleh’s General People’s Congress party from the southern province of Lahej.
“It will help us prepare the foundations for a new state in Yemen, a new future for Yemen,” she added.
Yemen, the second-poorest Arab state after Mauritania, is in sore need of good news. The World Bank says a third of the country’s population live under the poverty line of $2 a day and unemployment is estimated at about 35 percent, with youth joblessness at 60 percent.
Malnutrition among children is among the highest in the world. The United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, has said that 57 percent of Yemen’s 12 million children are chronically malnourished - the highest level of chronic malnutrition in the world after Afghanistan.
In a decree on the eve of the meeting, Hadi called for a shakeup of the political system, which he said was obsolete and responsible for keeping Yemen at the “end of the caravan”.
He outlined nine areas which he said will need to be tackled by specialized committees over a six-month period ahead of general elections in February 2014, expected to give Yemen its first democratic government after the uprising.
These include drafting a new constitution, revamping the civil service, unifying the armed forces which had been split since the early days of Saleh’s rule, and reviving the economy.
To some, the mere holding of the talks was an impressive achievement in itself.
But many Yemenis say the journey is fraught with uncertainties. Sharp ideological differences and tribal and party loyalties makes it hard for the delegates to agree on the reforms needed to lift Yemen out of the crisis.
Skeptics argue that many of the 565 delegates are illiterate and thus incapable of a meaningful contribution.
Most people agree, however, that the main challenge is to find a solution for growing demands by Yemenis in the south for separation.
South Yemen merged with North Yemen in 1990 after the collapse of its main patron, the Soviet Union. Secessionists failed in a civil war in 1994 to reverse the unification.
Secessionist leaders in a coalition known as al-Herak al-Janoubi (Southern Movement) complain that unity turned them into second class citizens.
Having taken to the streets to air their own grievances against Saleh’s rule, many in northern Yemen recognize the deep feeling of injustice that drives ordinary people to join regular protests in downtown Aden, capital of the former South Yemen.
A divorce by southern Yemen, where much of the country’s dwindling oil is located, could set off further fragmentation of the country at a time when the central government is still struggling to impose its control over the country.
In Eastern Yemen, local political leaders in Hadramout, once part of the former South Yemen bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman, have been hinting at desire for separation.
And in northern Yemen, Shi‘ite Muslim rebels in the Houthi movement, which champions the goal of restoring a 1,000-year rule by imams claiming to be descendents of the family of Prophet Mohammad, are in control of much of several provinces after the central government failed to crush their revolts.
Activists say an agreement at the “dialogue” conference for a just solution for the southern issue could buy the country’s unity extra time while the new government tries to persuade southern Yemenis to keep the union.
Asked to define a “just solution”, Shafie al-Abed, a Herak activist from Shabwa province, said: “An interim federal state comprising two regions that will guarantee the south the right to self determination.”
Editing by William Maclean